Nun sues Fort Worth Catholic diocese after bishop accuses her of violating chastity vow
BY ELIZABETH CAMPBELL
A reverend mother who oversees cloistered nuns at an Arlington monastery is in a legal battle with Bishop Michael Olson and the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese after he launched an investigation into allegations she violated her chastity vows with a priest. Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach has sued Olson and the diocese, seeking more than $1 million in damages. She accuses the bishop of abuse of power and overstepping his authority. Gerlach, along with Sister Francis Therese, filed the lawsuit May 3 in Tarrant County district court. The dispute is playing out in court and with canonical lawyers who handle ecclesiastical matters.
Matthew Bobo, an attorney representing the nuns, said the accusations are “absolutely false and have no basis.” “Per canon law, he doesn’t have the authority to start an investigation or take any action. This is an independent religious organization which answers directly to the Pope,” Bobo said. The nuns have lived quietly on 72 wooded acres near South Bowen Road and West Sublett Road since 1958.
The Sisters of Carmel are withdrawn from the world and spend much of their day in silent prayer. The order has existed since 1562. The diocese posted a statement on its website that said: “Bishop Michael Olson received a report in April 2023 that the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, O.C.D., committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth. The priest’s superiors have been notified. An ecclesiastical investigation into the report of the grave misconduct was initiated at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, on April 24, 2023. During this time, Mass is being offered for the sisters on Sundays. The Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes has responded by initiating civil litigation against Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth. Please pray for the sisters at the Monastery.” A spokesperson for the diocese said there would be no further comment and that the bishop was not available for an interview.
However, attorneys representing the diocese wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Thursday that Gerlach admitted to violating her chastity vows and that secular courts did not have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters and investigations. “The focal point of this entire dispute is an ecclesiastical investigation into sexual misconduct in violation of the Sixth Commandment — considered “grave misconduct” within the Catholic Church,” wrote the attorneys with Kelly Hart & Hallman in Fort Worth. “Plaintiff Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes has admitted to violating her vow of chastity, with a priest — a patently ecclesiastical, non-secular matter. The crux of Plaintiffs’ live pleading is that Defendants exceeded their authority by initiating and conducting investigatory and disciplinary proceedings.” The sixth commandment states, “You shall not commit adultery.” Asked to comment on the motion to dismiss the case, Bobo said the reverend mother was forced to confess under duress following surgery.
“This ‘admission’ was forced out of her under dire interrogation while she was under heavy medication from a procedure by the bishop with no advance notice,” Bobo said. “She does not recall what she admitted to doing she was so under the influence of medication. Further, they are making it sound like she had some sexual liaison affair with another priest, and that did not happen.” Meanwhile, Bobo said that Olson violated canonical law by posting information about the investigation into Gerlach and what she is accused of on a public website. According to court documents, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns Inc. is an independent nonprofit organization also listed as Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity.
The lawsuit said Olson arrived at the monastery on April 24 on 30 minutes’ notice with other diocese officials and a “forensic” technology expert. Olson “demanded” that the reverend mother turn over her laptop, iPad and cell phone, and told Gerlach and Sister Francis Therese that they could not handle the administrative duties of the monastery. The lawsuit alleges that Olson violated the reverend mother’s civil and canonical rights by telling her where she could sit and eat, and she was not allowed in her private bedroom although she requires constant medical care. She has a feeding tube and uses her iPad to communicate.
On April 25, the reverend mother underwent surgery, and when she returned to the monastery, she and other sisters were subjected to more questions and interrogation. Olson raised his voice, according to the lawsuit. “The Bishop threw a temper tantrum, and in an agitated and raised voice yelled that the Monastery was shut down, no Mass would be celebrated, he then slammed the door and left the Monastery, traumatizing the Sisters,” Gerlach said in her affidavit. The lawsuit states that the pope has the sole authority to remove nuns from an order, not the bishop.
Olson also told Sister Francis Therese that she was not allowed to talk to the reverend mother although she is her primary caregiver. Bobo said that the diocese returned the iPhone and other devices on May 15, but insisted on having copies of everything on those devices. Bobo said the sisters just want to resume their life of prayer and devotion to God. “A local diocese cannot dismiss a nun or a monk from an order,” Bobo said. “This creates an emotional toll on their lives.” Bobo described Olson’s conduct as “mean and vindictive.”
“There has never been a situation of where a bishop has done something like this,” he said. “It’s really new ground that’s being treaded on.”